Childhoods

10/11/2015

1

Recently over at a friend’s place we found ourselves arguing while he and his girlfriend would very kindly help me cope with a recent break-up. Each night for around two weeks I would be invited to theirs for dinner, and for a couple of them I also slept on the couch. Yet at certain moments during our discussions, the friend would get angry and say that I should stop feeling so sorry for myself. Anna and I had been together in a long-distance relationship for three years, I hadn’t quite managed to provide the commitment she expected, and it was as though she started looking for someone with whom she could find it. I had been happy with the distance, I admitted to Mike and Mia, and said that it perhaps too readily replicated my relationship with my mother in my teens when I would visit every few weeks after she’d left my sister and I. I suppose I slowly collapsed after Anna told me, I can now admit, but it manifested itself as anger, and I wished I had made certain feelings clearer. By the time I was ready to say how much I loved her, how much I cared, it was too late. I had told her after almost two years, but I never quite felt that she believed me: as if our emotions have to move much quicker than that, and for the following year I somehow thought that I could not regain that initial period where Anna was so clearly in love.

Anyway, as I would explain some of these things to Mike and Mia, he would feel a little sympathy before suddenly getting annoyed, saying I should pull myself together. Mia would look at me sympathetically and then glance across at Mike with a reproach. Keep talking, she would say, and so I talked.

2

Mia had met Anna only once. Mike and Mia had also been in a long distance relationship, and only in the last three months had Mia moved to Edinburgh permanently after finishing her degree in Bosnia. I knew Mike had been much quicker in telling Mia that he loved her. Though since she had moved over to Edinburgh they had been arguing occasionally as they shared a room in a large flat, yet even the bickering showed clear signs they loved each other.

In all the time I had been with Anna we had argued only once, during the previous summer when I was over in Paris. She had arranged for me to meet her parents at a restaurant near Parc Luxembourg and implored me not to be late. She knew that I had a habit no matter how unintentional of never making anything on time, and only a few days before meeting her parents I had managed to miss a film at the cinema we had arranged to see. It was a film she was happy to watch, she said, because she wanted to be with me, and I turned up at the box-office only for the box-office staff to tell me it had started a few minutes before and they could not allow late entrance.

I waited at the cafe across the road and as Anna exited and walked along the street she didn’t initially see me sitting there, and I saw on her face for those thirty seconds a look of disconsolation that she had been stood up for the umpteenth time. Of course that wasn’t what had happened. The film was in the 14th arrondissement and I had taken a wrong turn on my Velib and found myself on the wrong side of some railway tracks: it took me twenty minutes to find my bearings again.

As she saw me sitting in the cafe a half-smile came to her face as she was relieved to see me, but it couldn’t quite hide what I saw was the pain of what she must have taken as another example of subtle rejection. That night I held her tightly in bed, looking around at the CD collection, and the books. As we listened to a song by Kath Bloom called Come Here, she sobbed gently and I told her for the first time that I loved her. It was a song from a film we had seen a few weeks after we had started seeing each other, and where she had said she was falling in love. I said pathetically that I liked her very much too, and the breach must have begun to appear.

3

It was a few days after my declaration of love Anna said she would like me to meet her parents, and thus before doing so as I made sure I was fifteen minutes early, sat waiting for thirty minutes as Anna arrived fifteen minutes late, and we waited another forty minutes as her parents explained that they had enormous trouble parking. I, of course, didn’t mind that they were so late, but it was as though they were under no obligation to apologise, and yet if I had been tardy Anna would have been so very angry with me. It was a couple of days after the dinner, where my poor French and their only adequate English had made the evening pleasant but uneventful, that another example of me feeling I was being told what to do occurred. Anna worked in a cafe run by a close friend of her and, as I was checking my emails on the computer used for work. she said I should get out of the way: the boss was coming. I quickly closed my account and disappeared into the toilet next to the office.

That evening Anna and I argued, or rather I remonstrated and she listened. After about five minutes she retreated into the kitchen, closing the door. I sat on the bed, my head in my hands, knowing that I had very much hurt her. After about thirty minutes I tapped on the door and said I was really sorry. She replied she needed a little bit more time, and then came out and hugged me, saying she hated being reproached. I apologised and said I felt terrible for reproaching her, and we lay in bed hugging each other. She said it meant so, so much for her that I had met her parents, and that I had told her I loved her. She was a small bundle of affection in my arms, and I had never felt so close to another person as at this moment with her compact body and her long, entangling hair nestled against my chest.

4

But a year later it was over: the long distance had generated an ever-increasing feeling of loneliness in my absence, and since Anna was beautiful and sensitive, other men were happy to alleviate it. Eventually she accepted. She didn’t say much about this person she had met, except to say that he made her feel like she mattered. I asked her whether she was leaving because she no longer loved me or suspected I had never really loved her. She said she didn’t really know, but it was as though the idea of a new relationship at the very least could clear her head. Friends and family wondered why she had stayed with me so long, and I knew from a few other remarks Anna had made that this man wanted the very things that she always felt she would have had to coerce me into getting: moving in together, getting married, having children. What could I say, but offer a few declarations, promises and hopes? Nothing I said to her in the emails I sent, the phone calls I made and the texts I offered contained anything insincere, but why couldn’t I have been so effusive when we were together she asked in one of her replies.

5

She half knew the answer to this, but that didn’t mean she had to play analyst for the rest of her life to my traumas, even if I’ve always thought many a relationship is based on the sub-conscious acknowledgement of childhood loss that becomes part of the feelings then generated by love. But what interests me more here are the arguments I would have with Mike that perhaps were an acknowledgement of friendship on a profound level too.

I had known Mike for around ten years. He was half Greek and half Scottish. His father had moved to Scotland along with his older brother when Mike was eight, and before then worked at the University of Athens, a classics scholar who combined philological research with theoretical enquiry. He would write on Homer and Pindar but also incorporate into his research contemporary thinkers like Althusser and Jameson. His father was offered a better job but the actual reason for taking it was because he wanted to get over an impossible pain: his wife had passed away a year or two before he moved with his kids to Edinburgh, and he believed a new country, a new city, might allow the three of them to recover more easily. Mike had only talked about this once before with me, but the conversation was mutually meaningful as I discussed my mother leaving my father and their two kids for another man, and he told me that his mother died of a sudden heart attack at the age of thirty-six. Of course, as we talked we knew that the situation wasn’t the same: that he would never see his mother again and I wasn’t sure if I could ever forgive mine. He told me that every year he would go back and visit her grave, smothering it with flowers and aching with loss as he stood there for hours. I said that I hardly saw my mother at all even though she still lived through in Glasgow, would always phone me to say that she was coming to Edinburgh, and I would usually ignore her calls, or tell her I was busy if I did answer. I couldn’t quite remove from my body a feeling of contempt that had grown ever more evident in my adult years.

As a child I didn’t have this feeling; it was one instead of incomprehensible absence, and between the ages of nine, when she left, and eighteen, when I refused any longer to see her regularly, I would yearn to visit her every other weekend, long for that moment when I would get off the bus and see her waiting for me at the station. She would hug me as though hadn’t seen me for months, and though of course as I got older I became more resistant to her affection, it wasn’t until I started seeing my first girlfriend that I viewed my mother in what I can only call a different light. If before she was possessed of a burnished hue; by the time I was eighteen I would see her with a tarnished shade, a darker personality than I might have previously imagined.

6

It was perhaps under Nicole’s influence that I saw my mother turn from white to black, or rather to red as Nicole insisted on seeing her as a scarlet woman, someone who prioritised her own desires over her children’s needs. Nicole’s parents had remained together even though they would sometimes argue, sometimes fight. She recalled once when she was about eleven that her mother came into her bedroom and burst into tears saying her father was neglecting her, that he was never there and focused only on work that kept him away from the family home several nights during the week. But she never did leave, Nicole said, adding that her and her brother always supported her in these moments when she felt so vulnerable, and soon enough their father was back home and worked hard at being a dad when he was around. I was sometimes mildly irritated by Nicole’s capacity to reduce the family to the emotionally pragmatic, to seeing it as a unit of feeling that must always remain together, but knew also there was a sense in my stomach that even mild abandonment or a hint of rejection could exacerbate and leave me a little lost and bewildered. I often felt that absence as an adult, and perhaps why I was wary of getting close to anyone. As Nicole said one afternoon, while we lay on the beach at Portobello, that she was going to leave me, that she knew when she would go off to university in Newcastle there would be other people, other affairs, I sat up abruptly and asked her what she was talking about: my stomach knotted and gnarled by an echo of pain.

I said to her hadn’t she talked about fidelity, the importance of her parents’ marriage, the notion that my mother had betrayed my father and her family? Wasn’t she now doing the same by leaving me? She believed there was a great difference between an eighteen-year-old girl leaving her first boyfriend, and a mother leaving her children. Her point had always been that my mother had refused to play fair by her responsibilities; she might have been better doing exactly what Nicole was doing then: leaving me to find out what she wanted in life before settling down too hastily. If I happened to take it so badly it rested on the very insecurity my mother had created in me.

7

Perhaps everything Nicole said was justifiable, but there still seemed to me a breathtaking disregard for feeling in her response, yet instead of wandering about Nicole’s brutal approach to the break-up I became angrier still with my mother. Tempted to write a letter trying to get Nicole back, I instead wrote a long one to my mother asking why she left. About a week later I received an even longer reply. It ran to three pages, and I am not sure if I was quite the recipient then that I happen to be now, and will say a little bit about it further in. All I felt at the time was still greater contempt for a woman I could no longer at all idealise as I over the next fifteen years had only casual flings and no long term commitments. I have no idea whether any of these women fell in love with me; I can only say that I felt incapable of falling in love with them. I couched it in simple terms. I was a young man with little money who wanted to survive as a writer any way necessary; that meant no permanent job, no mortgage and no kids. I would announce these absolutes early on, and few people wished to stay longer than several months, though most of them when I would see them on the street, or exchange an occasional email, seemed to carry within them not much resentment. As one or two of them had said: they would prefer a man who loved them and wanted a stable relationship, but, if not, a fling with an honest person was better than a false promise of love with someone who only said they wanted to settle down.

Indeed, over the years, I came to be friends with a number of these lovers, and occasionally they would come round to my flat, have dinner and stay the night. This would often happen not long after a break-up with someone who had promised them the very things I couldn’t countenence, and yet who left them with their dreams looking like figments of their own imagination. One respected the fact I always insisted on seeing the reality of things; another that she thought respect was a vital dimension of love and she suspected there were lovers in my past that would be happy if I ever changed my mind about commitment who would want to spend their life with me. I provocatively suggested to her that seemed awfully like a proposition, and she replied, snuggling up next to me as if we had been together for years, that if I did make the commitment wouldn’t I be in danger of breaking it and becoming like all those other men? But I am a man of my word, I insisted. Yet wouldn’t those words seem a bit hollow as they echoed those of all these other men who had promised so much more? Such was the paradox I agreed.

8

Yet this was the paradox that was my affair with Anna. I did not know when I met her that I wanted more than a light relationship, yet perhaps there is something in beginnings that can create a momentum missing from the more mundane meetings. I had been travelling through Spain for a couple of months feeling exhausted, irritated and wondering exactly why I embarked on the trip as it devoured thousands of pounds of my savings. Anyway, it wasn’t until I arrived in Granada that I found a city equal to my yearnings and while I of course cannot now see this feeling separate from my desire for Anna, I believe that it was if the enchantment of the place created in me an emotional crevice that I might more easily have resisted in Edinburgh. I was staying in a hostel and after a couple of days there Anna arrived. She was petite and polite, with delicate gestures that indicated she was always interested in other people’s thoughts, feelings and words. It is as if she was a person who was never complete in herself not because she felt unwhole, but because she thought the notion of wholeness, of one person complete unto themselves, was a myth of identity. That people were instead in a state of ongoing incompleteness, and that love in its various manifestations augmented a self which was hollow without these influxes of other selves. Of course this is an observation I could make after knowing her a couple of years, but I’m not so sure if I didn’t get a feeling of it already after a conversation we happened to have in the kitchen that first evening, and during a walk around the streets of Sacromonte. She would walk with her hands close to her body and with springy steps that were perhaps unusual for a French woman: she insisted most walked with a level of sophistication she could never aspire to, and instead accepted that perhaps the walk she possessed would see her well into old age. I said to her that if I knew anything about her she was someone who would age well. Why, she asked, curious by this premonitory compliment. Because she would be unlikely to know bitterness, I replied.

9

But there I was ten years older than she happened to be and when we discussed our age she had assumed I was only a couple of years older than her. Yet I could not pretend there had been no bitterness in my life, and perhaps I had sealed it off in a place that didn’t do too much harm even it still manifested itself in ways that protected me from pain but removed from me a certain quality of feeling. When I saw in Anna this capacity to see herself unwhole healthily, I knew it was an aspect to which I had never managed to aspire. She seemed to have no routines; I was full of them. She had will power where I had discipline. She had love where I had consideration. I would have to run every morning no matter the weather; she would sometimes go for a swim, or a walk, or a cycle. She looked to gain pleasure from an activity; I sometimes would wish to feel pain through exercise. It kept me young, perhaps, but left me somehow cold to the world, less sensually involved than I would have liked.

Yet I am not sure if I could have said Anna was passionate; more that she saw the world subtly, and wanted to feel it through this subtlety of expression. Very occasionally she would say she missed me, and even less occasionally that she loved me. But she would show it constantly. Once a shirt arrived through the post. When thanking her on the phone I asked how she knew which size would fit. She said she saw that most of my shirts were 14 inches around the collar, worked this out in centimetres, and wandered round various shops in Paris until she saw a shirt that matched my skin colouring. Anna said she had looked through numerous photos and could see which colours suited me the most. On a couple of occasions she would phone from Paris a bookshop I would use here in Edinburgh: an ethical book store that she knew I would always buy from as an act of support. Margaret, who ran the store, would then tell me a book had arrived and I could pick it up. Of course the first time I wondered how that could be, and when I took it from the shop I had remembered making a passing reference to the book to Anna.

I was not I had to admit much of a gift giver, and never really received presents as a child. My mother would often joke that she never knew how to wrap anything properly: usually when I went through in Glasgow she would take me shopping and ask me what I wanted. My father would do likewise, and so I never had the idea of what a surprising gift happened to be until I met Anna: it was as if she was the person who knew what was on my mind and managed to surprise me with what I didn’t even know I wished for. What I gave her in return was a quality of perception she once said: a way of looking at things that she couldn’t have imagined. Sometimes we would talk about films, a book, friends, and she said I usually had a perspective that thoroughly surprised her and yet she could see was utterly valid. Yet she knew this ‘gift’ that I possessed wasn’t quite a gift to her. I would share it with others, it would find its way into the work, but where her gifts were exclusively for me and reflected how much I was on her mind, my gifts to her couldn’t claim the same exclusivity. Yet this wasn’t really so: increasingly the thoughts I shared were accompanied by a sense of touch, and I knew I could begin to express to her feelings I hadn’t offered to anyone else as her gentle gestures soothed me into confession.

10

It would have been a couple of months after I’d said I had loved her, and on her next visit to Scotland, that I showed Anna the letter my mother had written to me: a letter I hadn’t shown to anyone else and that I hadn’t read in some years. It was a late September evening and when she started reading the letter there was just enough daylight to read it, but by the time she had finished there was just enough darkness to create a feeling of crepuscular respect. I watched her as she read it slowly, watched as a tear formed about halfway through the letter and the sobs started before she reached the conclusion. I left her for a minute, finding a candle next door which I lit and took through, as if any greater light would have been an act of insensitivity towards her feelings, even though I knew it was likely we would in a moment be talking about mine.

Anna said the letter was one of the saddest things she had ever read, asked me when I had last looked at it, and when I said not in many years, she added that she felt honoured to have read it. It seemed an odd word to use, but as the candle light gave her skin a warm glow, and her eyes a soft warmth, a tear trickled down my cheek. I couldn’t quite understand that tear then, and perhaps cannot even quite understand it now, but I do think I realised that my situation with Anna was replicating those years when I would see my mother regularly between two cities. Now the distance was much greater, but the emotional coincidence similar. Just as I had then never missed my mother knowing that I would see her again, so I never really missed Anna knowing that we would see each other in Edinburgh or Paris sometime soon. Really there were only two occasions where I felt like I missed her. The first was when we had the use of a house that belonged to a friend of hers in the South of France. It was in Nimes, and though we were far from the sea and the weather was close to forty degrees, we would swim several times a day in the twelve metre swimming pool they would have at the back at the house.

I was there for over a fortnight, but after a week Anna carried on to a French island where she was meeting her parents and her sister: the father had a yacht moored off the island and she had promised months earlier to spend time with them. I would continue the routine of waking early, swimming for twenty minutes, going to pick up a cereal baguette and now just one croissant, reading in the afternoons, cooking and watching a film in the evening. But the actions felt like those not of solitude but loneliness. I wouldn’t feel this when I was alone in Edinburgh and thus couldn’t quite claim that I missed Anna when there: to miss someone is surely where one’s solitariness becomes lonely, where their absence is properly pronounced.

It happened again the following summer too. This time I was in Paris for a month and stayed for a week in Anna’s flat while she was on the yacht again. It was a third floor flat in an apartment block in the 20th arrondissement, near the Metro station Pyramid. Anna had moved in only a few months before she started seeing me, and she quickly gave it a character I can only describe as intimate. When you walked into the flat everything felt warm: the worn, mahogany floorboards, the various rugs, the throws on the couches and chairs, the lamps and the old crockery. Most of the items were bought in charity shops, thrift stores or found on the street. The same with the books, and CDs a collection indicative half of taste; half down to chance, amounting to about six hundred volumes and four hundred CDs; all in the sitting room that was also her bedroom, with the bed the couch that she only unfolded, she said when I would visit. In her absence I slept on the settee too, but could never get quite comfortable, unsure whether it was her absence or the narrowness of the couch.

11

So these were the only occasions where I missed her presence, and I wish I had told her more about these moments of a felt absence, because Anna often thought that I couldn’t have loved her very much if I could tolerate so easily how much time we would be apart. I wish I had told her just after she had read the letter, but it is only now, writing this, that I have managed to formulate it as I’ve expressed it here. I see no reason to talk about what was in the letter except to say that recently after breaking up with Anna, I’ve had the chance to talk to my mother about it, and instead I will say a little about the letter I received from Anna that announced our own parting. She told me that after three years the long distance had become too much for her; that initial thoughts of us some day being together had increasingly led to her thinking of how she had adjusted to being alone. She suspected that long distance relationships do one of two things: make someone needy and leads to another person coming into their life, or the opposite: that one becomes so used to their own company that they realise that their long distant lover isn’t so important to them any more. She said this not at all cynically but sorrowfully, insisting that for most of those three years she waited for me to suggest that at some point we would live together; that we would make our home in Edinburgh or Paris. But increasingly her thoughts moved to being alone, to living and making decisions for one. And into this loneliness, or solitude, she wasn’t sure which, someone else had perhaps come.

I read and reread the letter and was surprised less by Anna’s decision than by my own inability to see that such a situation could not have gone on indefinitely. How could I have really thought that she would for years of her life go back and forth from one city to the other? Hadn’t she expressed a wish for a child at some point; didn’t she feel her flat in Paris was however nicely located and furnished a place in which she didn’t expect to settle?

Over the next couple of months what I missed wasn’t only Anna, but Anna in Paris. I missed the walks we would take around Parc Montsouris and Butte Chaumont, walks through the 14th arrondissement and all around the 5th. I think we must have covered more than half of the city, sometimes by Velib, sometimes by foot. We never got the Metro or the bus unless the weather or extreme tiredness demanded it, and so Paris always seemed to me an open air city for all the claustrophobia of its population density. I would take in the smells of the place, whether it was a whiff of sanitation coming through a grate, the chickens turning on a spit outside a north African shop, the smell of strong cigarettes at a cafe corner. I recall the sharp tangy taste of stewed mint tea, and the tart taste of an espresso. I remember most of all though the smell of Anna’s body after we made love, as though we had created a third smell, a unique odour made out of the long, slow experience of two bodies sweating together, working for each other’s pleasure. Most of these smells I of course can find elsewhere, and perhaps in a year or two I will go to Paris and savour them without suffering. But others, those between Anna and I, will not be shared, and this is the pain of an irrecoverable memory.

12

What could be recovered were at least memories with my mother. During the time I was with Anna I had started speaking to her more often, even went to see her a couple of times. I would sometimes think of introducing her to Anna: they both occasionally spoke about the desire to meet up, with my mother assuming that my increased willingness to see her resided in my happiness with Anna, and once wondered whether Anna had suggested a closer relationship between my mother and me: a suggestion Anna had actually made after reading my mother’s letter. But they never did meet and this again felt like a loss – and one I wanted somehow to rectify through transforming the relationship I had with mum.

When we next talked I said to her I thought it would be a great idea that instead of meeting for two or three hours in a cafe before I would get the bus back again, we should meet early and we could devote the day to each other’s company. Let us walk and talk, I said, let us wander through Glasgow’s parks and streets, I offered, as if, I would now think, trying to replicate the time in Paris with Anna with time in Glasgow with my mother.

And so this is what we did. I arrived off the bus at ten in the morning, in Buchanan Street station, and she was waiting there looking nervous and fretful. She was always hesitant when we would meet up, feeling she had lost the right to assert her love the moment she walked out on her children, and I would always remember this was something she had put in the letter. What she had also said in it was that she had never wanted to leave her children; only her husband. She never really explained what she meant by this, and it was one of the things I wanted to ask her about.

As we walked out along Sauchiehall Street in the direction of the west end she asked me why I wanted to spend the day with her. As I tried to provide an answer while we jostled through the Saturday crowds I said we should stop off somewhere for a tea or a coffee. As we passed the CCA I suggested we go on through and up the back to the cafe Saramago. I had been there a couple of times with Anna after we had seen films at the centre. I explained as we sat there that I thought it felt good once again to be in each other’s company as we would when I was a teenager. We would go to films, sometimes to galleries, sometimes to the theatre, but often we would walk and sit in the park. In those years my mother and I would talk perhaps like a teacher to a fond pupil, and it was only after Nicole insisted that she hadn’t been a fit mother that I turned resentful towards her because of the role she had failed to fulfil.

It was while in the cafe I asked her why she had wanted to leave my father. She said that for several years he was too often absent. Of course she knew that as a lecturer in art theory he would have to go to conferences; but she was an English lecturer and didn’t feel obliged to attend more than a couple a year. My father looked for any excuse to leave the family home, and it reached the stage where he was away as often as he was in Edinburgh. She would ask him frequently if the conference was really so essential, and he said simply that he wanted to go and that was that. He hated people telling him how he should live, and over time she befriended a colleague at work. Nothing ever happened between them during the two years he was working in Edinburgh. But when Alan was given a job in Glasgow and said he was moving there, my mother realised how much was she going to miss him. One evening a month or so before he was leaving, they admitted they had feelings for each other, and she said that over the next few weeks she wondered how she could take her kids with her as well.

When she told my father that she was leaving, that she had felt lonely for some time and another man wanted her it seemed far more than he did, my father became angry, saying she could walk but she wouldn’t be taking the children with her. She knew that his mother was often available to look after us, knew that the house they had in Edinburgh would be much bigger than the flat Alan and she could afford to rent in Glasgow (my father had inherited the house from his grandfather), and that it would be awkward for both my sister and I to adjust suddenly to a stranger as a dad. The best thing she believed was for us to remain at home, in the same school, and then see what would happen thereafter. No more than a week would go by without us seeing each other, she said, with my sister and I usually going through to Glasgow, my mother often coming through to Edinburgh for the day. Perhaps she shouldn’t have left, she said, but she suspected my father was having affairs during these trips, and a couple of years later, one afternoon when they met up in Edinburgh to discuss my sister and I, he talked about how happy he was now. He said he needn’t feel any guilt going to conferences and doing what he liked: implying he did what he liked before but felt guilt in doing so. She didn’t want to disparage my father, she insisted, but she assumed that everyone was at least content with the situation. She knew my nan would stay over when my father was away, and that we never wanted for a good meal or someone in the house to look after us.

It was then I handed the letter to her that she had sent me years before. I said to her that I’d never really appreciated it until quite recently, described showing it to Anna a year earlier, and reading it many times since, especially in the weeks after Anna and I broke up. My mother looked shocked: I hadn’t told her Anna and I had parted, and she asked what had happened.

I explained that I suppose the distance became too great a burden for her, and she started dealing with it by missing me less and enjoying her life more: she hadn’t, near the end, any longer put three or four nights aside a week for the phone calls; she would only speak once or twice. The phone calls became shorter, and her Parisian life busier. Then one morning I received a letter, and that evening I phoned her, and as we talked she said she couldn’t envisage a future with me, thinking she might have found someone with whom she could. Did she have anyone especially in mind, I asked, my breath a little short and my voice tightening. There were people who were interested Anna said, she knew that. And yes, someone with whom she might be falling in love. I overreacted and said I suppose she should act upon it, find someone more suitable to her needs and stop threatening me with demands I couldn’t meet.

She told me that she loved me; I said if that was so then surely we should continue as we were: seeing each other a few times a year, and remaining as faithful to each other as we had managed to be thus far. Hadn’t we built something very strong; perhaps all the stronger for the distance? She believed that was what we were in danger of weakening; and if I cared so much about her would I not have wanted to strengthen that by living together? As I’ve said, Anna and I almost never argued, but that evening I believed she was emotionally blackmailing me and she was so very, very sad that I thought that. We got off the phone without making up, and when I suggested in an email a couple of days later that we should talk, she said we should communicate by email only for the moment. Over the next few weeks we would email but she always resisted talking on the phone, and then she sent one final email, only a couple of weeks ago, saying that it couldn’t continue. I sent an angry response and said it was probably for the best and she could now enjoy her life in Paris without wasting time talking with me.

I offered all this to my mother, knowing that I had responded in some way likewise when after she had sent me her letter, when she had tried to explain and explore why she had to leave, and why I admitted now I was too young to accept it. She said as gently as she could that I perhaps was still somehow too young to accept love, too tender and still too hurt, and that my response to Anna had been insensitive, even cruel. She said that she had deserved this cruelty: she had walked out on her children. But did Anna? Was she expected to devote the rest of her life to a man who would have been happy with a long distance relationship because it replicated his own teenage years? It was an irony too far of course that my mother admitted she left me and my sister because she couldn’t accept my father’s absence and created in me the very desire for it, a wish of course that could also just as easily have been reflecting my father’s own: as if a certain need for solitude is genetic. You should try and see her in Paris, she said. If you love her; go to her. But she might not want to see me I insisted. Perhaps, she said. I asked her if my father could have won her back. She said that I was not my father; I was a much kinder and gentler man. It was the first time she had ever really spoken badly of him, and I could see she was doing so only to speak kindly of me.

13

This conversation with my mother took place not long after I’d been talking each night to Mike and Mia, and perhaps I went through to see my mother partly because I wanted to escape from burdening them any longer with my heart, but it was also a suggestion made in Mike’s absence. The night before going through to Glasgow Mia said I should speak to her: I have a mum; see her. It was when she said this I thought about how insensitive I had been not only to Anna as we broke-up, but also to Mike as we talked about it. Mike’s mother after all had passed away when he was six, and as I had discussed replicating patterns with Anna that resembled those with my mother I hadn’t thought much about how he might feel to hear this. What possible patterns could he have repeated concerning his mother, and I feel a little ashamed now to write this knowing that he could neither replicate the pattern nor ever again have the chance to speak to her.

14

After going back through to Edinburgh I sent Mike a text saying it would be great if we could perhaps meet up alone for a chat. We met in a pub on the other side of town from where we both lived, and it was as though when he walked through the door he knew this wasn’t for a casual drink but a serious conversation. He suggested we get ourselves a whisky, and over the next three hours we each had three of them: a ten-year-old single malt, Ardbeg, that was the recommendation of the month. We sniffed its aroma, allowing the taste to play on our tongues, on the back of our throats, and we talked.

I said to him I was sorry for what I could only call my insensitivity, my insistent need to talk about breaking up with Anna, and then making links to my mother’s absence during my teenage years. I asked him if I should go on, and as he nodded I said that I knew we hadn’t talked about it very much, but I was obviously well aware that he lost his mother to death and not to geographical absence. I wondered if this had anything to do with his irritation towards me in the flat on those occasions. He couldn’t deny that might have been true: after all there I was talking about losing Anna and linking it to my mother leaving me and moving away no further than Glasgow. He supposed that he believed my loss seemed minor next to his own. But he also added that it seemed trivial because he had not only lost his mother but was determined to hold on to Mia. Their long-distance relationship was forced upon them: she had come over several summers ago and had to return for her studies, but, they both agreed, as soon as the degree was over, they would live together. Anna and I could have lived together anytime we liked, but he knew that I was happy with the distance and he suspected that a time would come when she wouldn’t be so contented and it would have to be over. Perhaps, he admitted, his mother’s death made him more needy than me: made him aware that when people are gone they are really gone, where I knew they were merely absent. That combination of a loss that was much more minor than his own, and a sense that I had let Anna go because I wouldn’t acknowledge her importance in my life, left him at moments unsympathetic to my situation he said.

I then told him about the letter I’d received many years ago from my mother. For the first time, she and I discussed it when I had recently been through in Glasgow, and I couldn’t help but feel lucky that I could do so many years later after refusing to speak to her when I was younger. As I said this the most stricken look I’ve ever seen crossed my friend’s face as he said how lucky I was indeed. He then added, as if at the same time aware of how happy he was to be with Mia, that perhaps I could reconcile with someone else as well. I looked back, took a sip of whisky, and asked him what I should do. You could get on a plane to Paris, he said, and tell Anna you want her back, that you want to live with her. She might say no, but you’ve tried, for once in your life you’ve really tried. Irritation again came into his voice, but contained within it was the wistful sadness of someone who had lost the irrecoverable and knew that in Mia he had found his adulthood. Perhaps, I said, as if wondering whether the future lay in once again seeking out my past or hoping for something else, someone else to come into my life in the present.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Childhoods

1

Recently over at a friend's place we found ourselves arguing while he and his girlfriend would very kindly help me cope with a recent break-up. Each night for around two weeks I would be invited to theirs for dinner, and for a couple of them I also slept on the couch. Yet at certain moments during our discussions, the friend would get angry and say that I should stop feeling so sorry for myself. Anna and I had been together in a long-distance relationship for three years, I hadn't quite managed to provide the commitment she expected, and it was as though she started looking for someone with whom she could find it. I had been happy with the distance, I admitted to Mike and Mia, and said that it perhaps too readily replicated my relationship with my mother in my teens when I would visit every few weeks after she'd left my sister and I. I suppose I slowly collapsed after Anna told me, I can now admit, but it manifested itself as anger, and I wished I had made certain feelings clearer. By the time I was ready to say how much I loved her, how much I cared, it was too late. I had told her after almost two years, but I never quite felt that she believed me: as if our emotions have to move much quicker than that, and for the following year I somehow thought that I could not regain that initial period where Anna was so clearly in love.

Anyway, as I would explain some of these things to Mike and Mia, he would feel a little sympathy before suddenly getting annoyed, saying I should pull myself together. Mia would look at me sympathetically and then glance across at Mike with a reproach. Keep talking, she would say, and so I talked.

2

Mia had met Anna only once. Mike and Mia had also been in a long distance relationship, and only in the last three months had Mia moved to Edinburgh permanently after finishing her degree in Bosnia. I knew Mike had been much quicker in telling Mia that he loved her. Though since she had moved over to Edinburgh they had been arguing occasionally as they shared a room in a large flat, yet even the bickering showed clear signs they loved each other.

In all the time I had been with Anna we had argued only once, during the previous summer when I was over in Paris. She had arranged for me to meet her parents at a restaurant near Parc Luxembourg and implored me not to be late. She knew that I had a habit no matter how unintentional of never making anything on time, and only a few days before meeting her parents I had managed to miss a film at the cinema we had arranged to see. It was a film she was happy to watch, she said, because she wanted to be with me, and I turned up at the box-office only for the box-office staff to tell me it had started a few minutes before and they could not allow late entrance.

I waited at the cafe across the road and as Anna exited and walked along the street she didn't initially see me sitting there, and I saw on her face for those thirty seconds a look of disconsolation that she had been stood up for the umpteenth time. Of course that wasn't what had happened. The film was in the 14th arrondissement and I had taken a wrong turn on my Velib and found myself on the wrong side of some railway tracks: it took me twenty minutes to find my bearings again.

As she saw me sitting in the cafe a half-smile came to her face as she was relieved to see me, but it couldn't quite hide what I saw was the pain of what she must have taken as another example of subtle rejection. That night I held her tightly in bed, looking around at the CD collection, and the books. As we listened to a song by Kath Bloom called Come Here, she sobbed gently and I told her for the first time that I loved her. It was a song from a film we had seen a few weeks after we had started seeing each other, and where she had said she was falling in love. I said pathetically that I liked her very much too, and the breach must have begun to appear.

3

It was a few days after my declaration of love Anna said she would like me to meet her parents, and thus before doing so as I made sure I was fifteen minutes early, sat waiting for thirty minutes as Anna arrived fifteen minutes late, and we waited another forty minutes as her parents explained that they had enormous trouble parking. I, of course, didn't mind that they were so late, but it was as though they were under no obligation to apologise, and yet if I had been tardy Anna would have been so very angry with me. It was a couple of days after the dinner, where my poor French and their only adequate English had made the evening pleasant but uneventful, that another example of me feeling I was being told what to do occurred. Anna worked in a cafe run by a close friend of her and, as I was checking my emails on the computer used for work. she said I should get out of the way: the boss was coming. I quickly closed my account and disappeared into the toilet next to the office.

That evening Anna and I argued, or rather I remonstrated and she listened. After about five minutes she retreated into the kitchen, closing the door. I sat on the bed, my head in my hands, knowing that I had very much hurt her. After about thirty minutes I tapped on the door and said I was really sorry. She replied she needed a little bit more time, and then came out and hugged me, saying she hated being reproached. I apologised and said I felt terrible for reproaching her, and we lay in bed hugging each other. She said it meant so, so much for her that I had met her parents, and that I had told her I loved her. She was a small bundle of affection in my arms, and I had never felt so close to another person as at this moment with her compact body and her long, entangling hair nestled against my chest.

4

But a year later it was over: the long distance had generated an ever-increasing feeling of loneliness in my absence, and since Anna was beautiful and sensitive, other men were happy to alleviate it. Eventually she accepted. She didn't say much about this person she had met, except to say that he made her feel like she mattered. I asked her whether she was leaving because she no longer loved me or suspected I had never really loved her. She said she didn't really know, but it was as though the idea of a new relationship at the very least could clear her head. Friends and family wondered why she had stayed with me so long, and I knew from a few other remarks Anna had made that this man wanted the very things that she always felt she would have had to coerce me into getting: moving in together, getting married, having children. What could I say, but offer a few declarations, promises and hopes? Nothing I said to her in the emails I sent, the phone calls I made and the texts I offered contained anything insincere, but why couldn't I have been so effusive when we were together she asked in one of her replies.

5

She half knew the answer to this, but that didn't mean she had to play analyst for the rest of her life to my traumas, even if I've always thought many a relationship is based on the sub-conscious acknowledgement of childhood loss that becomes part of the feelings then generated by love. But what interests me more here are the arguments I would have with Mike that perhaps were an acknowledgement of friendship on a profound level too.

I had known Mike for around ten years. He was half Greek and half Scottish. His father had moved to Scotland along with his older brother when Mike was eight, and before then worked at the University of Athens, a classics scholar who combined philological research with theoretical enquiry. He would write on Homer and Pindar but also incorporate into his research contemporary thinkers like Althusser and Jameson. His father was offered a better job but the actual reason for taking it was because he wanted to get over an impossible pain: his wife had passed away a year or two before he moved with his kids to Edinburgh, and he believed a new country, a new city, might allow the three of them to recover more easily. Mike had only talked about this once before with me, but the conversation was mutually meaningful as I discussed my mother leaving my father and their two kids for another man, and he told me that his mother died of a sudden heart attack at the age of thirty-six. Of course, as we talked we knew that the situation wasn't the same: that he would never see his mother again and I wasn't sure if I could ever forgive mine. He told me that every year he would go back and visit her grave, smothering it with flowers and aching with loss as he stood there for hours. I said that I hardly saw my mother at all even though she still lived through in Glasgow, would always phone me to say that she was coming to Edinburgh, and I would usually ignore her calls, or tell her I was busy if I did answer. I couldn't quite remove from my body a feeling of contempt that had grown ever more evident in my adult years.

As a child I didn't have this feeling; it was one instead of incomprehensible absence, and between the ages of nine, when she left, and eighteen, when I refused any longer to see her regularly, I would yearn to visit her every other weekend, long for that moment when I would get off the bus and see her waiting for me at the station. She would hug me as though hadn't seen me for months, and though of course as I got older I became more resistant to her affection, it wasn't until I started seeing my first girlfriend that I viewed my mother in what I can only call a different light. If before she was possessed of a burnished hue; by the time I was eighteen I would see her with a tarnished shade, a darker personality than I might have previously imagined.

6

It was perhaps under Nicole's influence that I saw my mother turn from white to black, or rather to red as Nicole insisted on seeing her as a scarlet woman, someone who prioritised her own desires over her children's needs. Nicole's parents had remained together even though they would sometimes argue, sometimes fight. She recalled once when she was about eleven that her mother came into her bedroom and burst into tears saying her father was neglecting her, that he was never there and focused only on work that kept him away from the family home several nights during the week. But she never did leave, Nicole said, adding that her and her brother always supported her in these moments when she felt so vulnerable, and soon enough their father was back home and worked hard at being a dad when he was around. I was sometimes mildly irritated by Nicole's capacity to reduce the family to the emotionally pragmatic, to seeing it as a unit of feeling that must always remain together, but knew also there was a sense in my stomach that even mild abandonment or a hint of rejection could exacerbate and leave me a little lost and bewildered. I often felt that absence as an adult, and perhaps why I was wary of getting close to anyone. As Nicole said one afternoon, while we lay on the beach at Portobello, that she was going to leave me, that she knew when she would go off to university in Newcastle there would be other people, other affairs, I sat up abruptly and asked her what she was talking about: my stomach knotted and gnarled by an echo of pain.

I said to her hadn't she talked about fidelity, the importance of her parents' marriage, the notion that my mother had betrayed my father and her family? Wasn't she now doing the same by leaving me? She believed there was a great difference between an eighteen-year-old girl leaving her first boyfriend, and a mother leaving her children. Her point had always been that my mother had refused to play fair by her responsibilities; she might have been better doing exactly what Nicole was doing then: leaving me to find out what she wanted in life before settling down too hastily. If I happened to take it so badly it rested on the very insecurity my mother had created in me.

7

Perhaps everything Nicole said was justifiable, but there still seemed to me a breathtaking disregard for feeling in her response, yet instead of wandering about Nicole's brutal approach to the break-up I became angrier still with my mother. Tempted to write a letter trying to get Nicole back, I instead wrote a long one to my mother asking why she left. About a week later I received an even longer reply. It ran to three pages, and I am not sure if I was quite the recipient then that I happen to be now, and will say a little bit about it further in. All I felt at the time was still greater contempt for a woman I could no longer at all idealise as I over the next fifteen years had only casual flings and no long term commitments. I have no idea whether any of these women fell in love with me; I can only say that I felt incapable of falling in love with them. I couched it in simple terms. I was a young man with little money who wanted to survive as a writer any way necessary; that meant no permanent job, no mortgage and no kids. I would announce these absolutes early on, and few people wished to stay longer than several months, though most of them when I would see them on the street, or exchange an occasional email, seemed to carry within them not much resentment. As one or two of them had said: they would prefer a man who loved them and wanted a stable relationship, but, if not, a fling with an honest person was better than a false promise of love with someone who only said they wanted to settle down.

Indeed, over the years, I came to be friends with a number of these lovers, and occasionally they would come round to my flat, have dinner and stay the night. This would often happen not long after a break-up with someone who had promised them the very things I couldn't countenence, and yet who left them with their dreams looking like figments of their own imagination. One respected the fact I always insisted on seeing the reality of things; another that she thought respect was a vital dimension of love and she suspected there were lovers in my past that would be happy if I ever changed my mind about commitment who would want to spend their life with me. I provocatively suggested to her that seemed awfully like a proposition, and she replied, snuggling up next to me as if we had been together for years, that if I did make the commitment wouldn't I be in danger of breaking it and becoming like all those other men? But I am a man of my word, I insisted. Yet wouldn't those words seem a bit hollow as they echoed those of all these other men who had promised so much more? Such was the paradox I agreed.

8

Yet this was the paradox that was my affair with Anna. I did not know when I met her that I wanted more than a light relationship, yet perhaps there is something in beginnings that can create a momentum missing from the more mundane meetings. I had been travelling through Spain for a couple of months feeling exhausted, irritated and wondering exactly why I embarked on the trip as it devoured thousands of pounds of my savings. Anyway, it wasn't until I arrived in Granada that I found a city equal to my yearnings and while I of course cannot now see this feeling separate from my desire for Anna, I believe that it was if the enchantment of the place created in me an emotional crevice that I might more easily have resisted in Edinburgh. I was staying in a hostel and after a couple of days there Anna arrived. She was petite and polite, with delicate gestures that indicated she was always interested in other people's thoughts, feelings and words. It is as if she was a person who was never complete in herself not because she felt unwhole, but because she thought the notion of wholeness, of one person complete unto themselves, was a myth of identity. That people were instead in a state of ongoing incompleteness, and that love in its various manifestations augmented a self which was hollow without these influxes of other selves. Of course this is an observation I could make after knowing her a couple of years, but I'm not so sure if I didn't get a feeling of it already after a conversation we happened to have in the kitchen that first evening, and during a walk around the streets of Sacromonte. She would walk with her hands close to her body and with springy steps that were perhaps unusual for a French woman: she insisted most walked with a level of sophistication she could never aspire to, and instead accepted that perhaps the walk she possessed would see her well into old age. I said to her that if I knew anything about her she was someone who would age well. Why, she asked, curious by this premonitory compliment. Because she would be unlikely to know bitterness, I replied.

9

But there I was ten years older than she happened to be and when we discussed our age she had assumed I was only a couple of years older than her. Yet I could not pretend there had been no bitterness in my life, and perhaps I had sealed it off in a place that didn't do too much harm even it still manifested itself in ways that protected me from pain but removed from me a certain quality of feeling. When I saw in Anna this capacity to see herself unwhole healthily, I knew it was an aspect to which I had never managed to aspire. She seemed to have no routines; I was full of them. She had will power where I had discipline. She had love where I had consideration. I would have to run every morning no matter the weather; she would sometimes go for a swim, or a walk, or a cycle. She looked to gain pleasure from an activity; I sometimes would wish to feel pain through exercise. It kept me young, perhaps, but left me somehow cold to the world, less sensually involved than I would have liked.

Yet I am not sure if I could have said Anna was passionate; more that she saw the world subtly, and wanted to feel it through this subtlety of expression. Very occasionally she would say she missed me, and even less occasionally that she loved me. But she would show it constantly. Once a shirt arrived through the post. When thanking her on the phone I asked how she knew which size would fit. She said she saw that most of my shirts were 14 inches around the collar, worked this out in centimetres, and wandered round various shops in Paris until she saw a shirt that matched my skin colouring. Anna said she had looked through numerous photos and could see which colours suited me the most. On a couple of occasions she would phone from Paris a bookshop I would use here in Edinburgh: an ethical book store that she knew I would always buy from as an act of support. Margaret, who ran the store, would then tell me a book had arrived and I could pick it up. Of course the first time I wondered how that could be, and when I took it from the shop I had remembered making a passing reference to the book to Anna.

I was not I had to admit much of a gift giver, and never really received presents as a child. My mother would often joke that she never knew how to wrap anything properly: usually when I went through in Glasgow she would take me shopping and ask me what I wanted. My father would do likewise, and so I never had the idea of what a surprising gift happened to be until I met Anna: it was as if she was the person who knew what was on my mind and managed to surprise me with what I didn't even know I wished for. What I gave her in return was a quality of perception she once said: a way of looking at things that she couldn't have imagined. Sometimes we would talk about films, a book, friends, and she said I usually had a perspective that thoroughly surprised her and yet she could see was utterly valid. Yet she knew this 'gift' that I possessed wasn't quite a gift to her. I would share it with others, it would find its way into the work, but where her gifts were exclusively for me and reflected how much I was on her mind, my gifts to her couldn't claim the same exclusivity. Yet this wasn't really so: increasingly the thoughts I shared were accompanied by a sense of touch, and I knew I could begin to express to her feelings I hadn't offered to anyone else as her gentle gestures soothed me into confession.

10

It would have been a couple of months after I'd said I had loved her, and on her next visit to Scotland, that I showed Anna the letter my mother had written to me: a letter I hadn't shown to anyone else and that I hadn't read in some years. It was a late September evening and when she started reading the letter there was just enough daylight to read it, but by the time she had finished there was just enough darkness to create a feeling of crepuscular respect. I watched her as she read it slowly, watched as a tear formed about halfway through the letter and the sobs started before she reached the conclusion. I left her for a minute, finding a candle next door which I lit and took through, as if any greater light would have been an act of insensitivity towards her feelings, even though I knew it was likely we would in a moment be talking about mine.

Anna said the letter was one of the saddest things she had ever read, asked me when I had last looked at it, and when I said not in many years, she added that she felt honoured to have read it. It seemed an odd word to use, but as the candle light gave her skin a warm glow, and her eyes a soft warmth, a tear trickled down my cheek. I couldn't quite understand that tear then, and perhaps cannot even quite understand it now, but I do think I realised that my situation with Anna was replicating those years when I would see my mother regularly between two cities. Now the distance was much greater, but the emotional coincidence similar. Just as I had then never missed my mother knowing that I would see her again, so I never really missed Anna knowing that we would see each other in Edinburgh or Paris sometime soon. Really there were only two occasions where I felt like I missed her. The first was when we had the use of a house that belonged to a friend of hers in the South of France. It was in Nimes, and though we were far from the sea and the weather was close to forty degrees, we would swim several times a day in the twelve metre swimming pool they would have at the back at the house.

I was there for over a fortnight, but after a week Anna carried on to a French island where she was meeting her parents and her sister: the father had a yacht moored off the island and she had promised months earlier to spend time with them. I would continue the routine of waking early, swimming for twenty minutes, going to pick up a cereal baguette and now just one croissant, reading in the afternoons, cooking and watching a film in the evening. But the actions felt like those not of solitude but loneliness. I wouldn't feel this when I was alone in Edinburgh and thus couldn't quite claim that I missed Anna when there: to miss someone is surely where one's solitariness becomes lonely, where their absence is properly pronounced.

It happened again the following summer too. This time I was in Paris for a month and stayed for a week in Anna's flat while she was on the yacht again. It was a third floor flat in an apartment block in the 20th arrondissement, near the Metro station Pyramid. Anna had moved in only a few months before she started seeing me, and she quickly gave it a character I can only describe as intimate. When you walked into the flat everything felt warm: the worn, mahogany floorboards, the various rugs, the throws on the couches and chairs, the lamps and the old crockery. Most of the items were bought in charity shops, thrift stores or found on the street. The same with the books, and CDs a collection indicative half of taste; half down to chance, amounting to about six hundred volumes and four hundred CDs; all in the sitting room that was also her bedroom, with the bed the couch that she only unfolded, she said when I would visit. In her absence I slept on the settee too, but could never get quite comfortable, unsure whether it was her absence or the narrowness of the couch.

11

So these were the only occasions where I missed her presence, and I wish I had told her more about these moments of a felt absence, because Anna often thought that I couldn't have loved her very much if I could tolerate so easily how much time we would be apart. I wish I had told her just after she had read the letter, but it is only now, writing this, that I have managed to formulate it as I've expressed it here. I see no reason to talk about what was in the letter except to say that recently after breaking up with Anna, I've had the chance to talk to my mother about it, and instead I will say a little about the letter I received from Anna that announced our own parting. She told me that after three years the long distance had become too much for her; that initial thoughts of us some day being together had increasingly led to her thinking of how she had adjusted to being alone. She suspected that long distance relationships do one of two things: make someone needy and leads to another person coming into their life, or the opposite: that one becomes so used to their own company that they realise that their long distant lover isn't so important to them any more. She said this not at all cynically but sorrowfully, insisting that for most of those three years she waited for me to suggest that at some point we would live together; that we would make our home in Edinburgh or Paris. But increasingly her thoughts moved to being alone, to living and making decisions for one. And into this loneliness, or solitude, she wasn't sure which, someone else had perhaps come.

I read and reread the letter and was surprised less by Anna's decision than by my own inability to see that such a situation could not have gone on indefinitely. How could I have really thought that she would for years of her life go back and forth from one city to the other? Hadn't she expressed a wish for a child at some point; didn't she feel her flat in Paris was however nicely located and furnished a place in which she didn't expect to settle?

Over the next couple of months what I missed wasn't only Anna, but Anna in Paris. I missed the walks we would take around Parc Montsouris and Butte Chaumont, walks through the 14th arrondissement and all around the 5th. I think we must have covered more than half of the city, sometimes by Velib, sometimes by foot. We never got the Metro or the bus unless the weather or extreme tiredness demanded it, and so Paris always seemed to me an open air city for all the claustrophobia of its population density. I would take in the smells of the place, whether it was a whiff of sanitation coming through a grate, the chickens turning on a spit outside a north African shop, the smell of strong cigarettes at a cafe corner. I recall the sharp tangy taste of stewed mint tea, and the tart taste of an espresso. I remember most of all though the smell of Anna's body after we made love, as though we had created a third smell, a unique odour made out of the long, slow experience of two bodies sweating together, working for each other's pleasure. Most of these smells I of course can find elsewhere, and perhaps in a year or two I will go to Paris and savour them without suffering. But others, those between Anna and I, will not be shared, and this is the pain of an irrecoverable memory.

12

What could be recovered were at least memories with my mother. During the time I was with Anna I had started speaking to her more often, even went to see her a couple of times. I would sometimes think of introducing her to Anna: they both occasionally spoke about the desire to meet up, with my mother assuming that my increased willingness to see her resided in my happiness with Anna, and once wondered whether Anna had suggested a closer relationship between my mother and me: a suggestion Anna had actually made after reading my mother's letter. But they never did meet and this again felt like a loss - and one I wanted somehow to rectify through transforming the relationship I had with mum.

When we next talked I said to her I thought it would be a great idea that instead of meeting for two or three hours in a cafe before I would get the bus back again, we should meet early and we could devote the day to each other's company. Let us walk and talk, I said, let us wander through Glasgow's parks and streets, I offered, as if, I would now think, trying to replicate the time in Paris with Anna with time in Glasgow with my mother.

And so this is what we did. I arrived off the bus at ten in the morning, in Buchanan Street station, and she was waiting there looking nervous and fretful. She was always hesitant when we would meet up, feeling she had lost the right to assert her love the moment she walked out on her children, and I would always remember this was something she had put in the letter. What she had also said in it was that she had never wanted to leave her children; only her husband. She never really explained what she meant by this, and it was one of the things I wanted to ask her about.

As we walked out along Sauchiehall Street in the direction of the west end she asked me why I wanted to spend the day with her. As I tried to provide an answer while we jostled through the Saturday crowds I said we should stop off somewhere for a tea or a coffee. As we passed the CCA I suggested we go on through and up the back to the cafe Saramago. I had been there a couple of times with Anna after we had seen films at the centre. I explained as we sat there that I thought it felt good once again to be in each other's company as we would when I was a teenager. We would go to films, sometimes to galleries, sometimes to the theatre, but often we would walk and sit in the park. In those years my mother and I would talk perhaps like a teacher to a fond pupil, and it was only after Nicole insisted that she hadn't been a fit mother that I turned resentful towards her because of the role she had failed to fulfil.

It was while in the cafe I asked her why she had wanted to leave my father. She said that for several years he was too often absent. Of course she knew that as a lecturer in art theory he would have to go to conferences; but she was an English lecturer and didn't feel obliged to attend more than a couple a year. My father looked for any excuse to leave the family home, and it reached the stage where he was away as often as he was in Edinburgh. She would ask him frequently if the conference was really so essential, and he said simply that he wanted to go and that was that. He hated people telling him how he should live, and over time she befriended a colleague at work. Nothing ever happened between them during the two years he was working in Edinburgh. But when Alan was given a job in Glasgow and said he was moving there, my mother realised how much was she going to miss him. One evening a month or so before he was leaving, they admitted they had feelings for each other, and she said that over the next few weeks she wondered how she could take her kids with her as well.

When she told my father that she was leaving, that she had felt lonely for some time and another man wanted her it seemed far more than he did, my father became angry, saying she could walk but she wouldn't be taking the children with her. She knew that his mother was often available to look after us, knew that the house they had in Edinburgh would be much bigger than the flat Alan and she could afford to rent in Glasgow (my father had inherited the house from his grandfather), and that it would be awkward for both my sister and I to adjust suddenly to a stranger as a dad. The best thing she believed was for us to remain at home, in the same school, and then see what would happen thereafter. No more than a week would go by without us seeing each other, she said, with my sister and I usually going through to Glasgow, my mother often coming through to Edinburgh for the day. Perhaps she shouldn't have left, she said, but she suspected my father was having affairs during these trips, and a couple of years later, one afternoon when they met up in Edinburgh to discuss my sister and I, he talked about how happy he was now. He said he needn't feel any guilt going to conferences and doing what he liked: implying he did what he liked before but felt guilt in doing so. She didn't want to disparage my father, she insisted, but she assumed that everyone was at least content with the situation. She knew my nan would stay over when my father was away, and that we never wanted for a good meal or someone in the house to look after us.

It was then I handed the letter to her that she had sent me years before. I said to her that I'd never really appreciated it until quite recently, described showing it to Anna a year earlier, and reading it many times since, especially in the weeks after Anna and I broke up. My mother looked shocked: I hadn't told her Anna and I had parted, and she asked what had happened.

I explained that I suppose the distance became too great a burden for her, and she started dealing with it by missing me less and enjoying her life more: she hadn't, near the end, any longer put three or four nights aside a week for the phone calls; she would only speak once or twice. The phone calls became shorter, and her Parisian life busier. Then one morning I received a letter, and that evening I phoned her, and as we talked she said she couldn't envisage a future with me, thinking she might have found someone with whom she could. Did she have anyone especially in mind, I asked, my breath a little short and my voice tightening. There were people who were interested Anna said, she knew that. And yes, someone with whom she might be falling in love. I overreacted and said I suppose she should act upon it, find someone more suitable to her needs and stop threatening me with demands I couldn't meet.

She told me that she loved me; I said if that was so then surely we should continue as we were: seeing each other a few times a year, and remaining as faithful to each other as we had managed to be thus far. Hadn't we built something very strong; perhaps all the stronger for the distance? She believed that was what we were in danger of weakening; and if I cared so much about her would I not have wanted to strengthen that by living together? As I've said, Anna and I almost never argued, but that evening I believed she was emotionally blackmailing me and she was so very, very sad that I thought that. We got off the phone without making up, and when I suggested in an email a couple of days later that we should talk, she said we should communicate by email only for the moment. Over the next few weeks we would email but she always resisted talking on the phone, and then she sent one final email, only a couple of weeks ago, saying that it couldn't continue. I sent an angry response and said it was probably for the best and she could now enjoy her life in Paris without wasting time talking with me.

I offered all this to my mother, knowing that I had responded in some way likewise when after she had sent me her letter, when she had tried to explain and explore why she had to leave, and why I admitted now I was too young to accept it. She said as gently as she could that I perhaps was still somehow too young to accept love, too tender and still too hurt, and that my response to Anna had been insensitive, even cruel. She said that she had deserved this cruelty: she had walked out on her children. But did Anna? Was she expected to devote the rest of her life to a man who would have been happy with a long distance relationship because it replicated his own teenage years? It was an irony too far of course that my mother admitted she left me and my sister because she couldn't accept my father's absence and created in me the very desire for it, a wish of course that could also just as easily have been reflecting my father's own: as if a certain need for solitude is genetic. You should try and see her in Paris, she said. If you love her; go to her. But she might not want to see me I insisted. Perhaps, she said. I asked her if my father could have won her back. She said that I was not my father; I was a much kinder and gentler man. It was the first time she had ever really spoken badly of him, and I could see she was doing so only to speak kindly of me.

13

This conversation with my mother took place not long after I'd been talking each night to Mike and Mia, and perhaps I went through to see my mother partly because I wanted to escape from burdening them any longer with my heart, but it was also a suggestion made in Mike's absence. The night before going through to Glasgow Mia said I should speak to her: I have a mum; see her. It was when she said this I thought about how insensitive I had been not only to Anna as we broke-up, but also to Mike as we talked about it. Mike's mother after all had passed away when he was six, and as I had discussed replicating patterns with Anna that resembled those with my mother I hadn't thought much about how he might feel to hear this. What possible patterns could he have repeated concerning his mother, and I feel a little ashamed now to write this knowing that he could neither replicate the pattern nor ever again have the chance to speak to her.

14

After going back through to Edinburgh I sent Mike a text saying it would be great if we could perhaps meet up alone for a chat. We met in a pub on the other side of town from where we both lived, and it was as though when he walked through the door he knew this wasn't for a casual drink but a serious conversation. He suggested we get ourselves a whisky, and over the next three hours we each had three of them: a ten-year-old single malt, Ardbeg, that was the recommendation of the month. We sniffed its aroma, allowing the taste to play on our tongues, on the back of our throats, and we talked.

I said to him I was sorry for what I could only call my insensitivity, my insistent need to talk about breaking up with Anna, and then making links to my mother's absence during my teenage years. I asked him if I should go on, and as he nodded I said that I knew we hadn't talked about it very much, but I was obviously well aware that he lost his mother to death and not to geographical absence. I wondered if this had anything to do with his irritation towards me in the flat on those occasions. He couldn't deny that might have been true: after all there I was talking about losing Anna and linking it to my mother leaving me and moving away no further than Glasgow. He supposed that he believed my loss seemed minor next to his own. But he also added that it seemed trivial because he had not only lost his mother but was determined to hold on to Mia. Their long-distance relationship was forced upon them: she had come over several summers ago and had to return for her studies, but, they both agreed, as soon as the degree was over, they would live together. Anna and I could have lived together anytime we liked, but he knew that I was happy with the distance and he suspected that a time would come when she wouldn't be so contented and it would have to be over. Perhaps, he admitted, his mother's death made him more needy than me: made him aware that when people are gone they are really gone, where I knew they were merely absent. That combination of a loss that was much more minor than his own, and a sense that I had let Anna go because I wouldn't acknowledge her importance in my life, left him at moments unsympathetic to my situation he said.

I then told him about the letter I'd received many years ago from my mother. For the first time, she and I discussed it when I had recently been through in Glasgow, and I couldn't help but feel lucky that I could do so many years later after refusing to speak to her when I was younger. As I said this the most stricken look I've ever seen crossed my friend's face as he said how lucky I was indeed. He then added, as if at the same time aware of how happy he was to be with Mia, that perhaps I could reconcile with someone else as well. I looked back, took a sip of whisky, and asked him what I should do. You could get on a plane to Paris, he said, and tell Anna you want her back, that you want to live with her. She might say no, but you've tried, for once in your life you've really tried. Irritation again came into his voice, but contained within it was the wistful sadness of someone who had lost the irrecoverable and knew that in Mia he had found his adulthood. Perhaps, I said, as if wondering whether the future lay in once again seeking out my past or hoping for something else, someone else to come into my life in the present.


© Tony McKibbin